William Blakes Songs of Innocence and of Experience date from the turbulent period in English and American history when the United States was in its infancy. Occupying 25 years of William Bolcoms compositional life, his "musical illuminations," inspired by Blakes own wide panoply of poetic styles in the cycle, travel thrillingly from intense dissonance to folk, rock, and reggae to encompass the breadth of the Blakean spiritual universe.
Bolcom's dream of setting Blake's poems to music began when he fell under their spell as a teenager; he worked on the composition of Songs of Innocence and of Experience on and off for 25 years, completing it in 1982. This live recording celebrates the 20th anniversary of the work's American premiere. Following an early edition of the poems that assigns them a different order from the customary one, he created nine movements to form "a series of arches." Blake's own principle of "contraries" and his use of many poetic traditions is a perfect counterfoil for Bolcom's eclecticism, which encompasses styles ranging from solemn chorales, lush romanticism, abrasive, dissonant modernism, to jazz, folk, country, and rock. His interpretation of the poems, which he calls "A Musical Illumination," is sometimes startling, but always interesting, highly personal, and unquestionably sincere. Some of the settings enhance and heighten the poems, entering deeply into their spirit and mood. Others seem at variance with them: "The Lilly," a peaceful, serene poem, set to crashing, aggressive music, is an extreme example, and some stratospheric, jagged soprano lines seem to add nothing to the text. For some of the most arresting, convincing settings, Bolcom uses his well-known and beloved cabaret style, sung to perfection by his wife and partner, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. Indeed, the entire performance is beyond praise. The work calls for a whole army of participants: several choruses, including a children's choir, a dozen vocal soloists, a speaker, a harmonica player, a fiddler, and a huge symphony orchestra augmented by electronic instruments and extra brass and percussion. The last produce a large number of terrifying explosions, both between and within the songs, as well as fascinating sound effects, like imitations of running water, delicate tinkles, and ominous roars and rumbles. The singers are superb; the women contribute incredible coloratura leaps, melting lyricism, caressing warmth, while the men include a heroic tenor, a commanding baritone, and sometimes sung, sometimes spoken scatting. Leonard Slatkin holds his enormous forces together with total control and authority. --Edith Eisler